Culture Matters in Retail

I am strongly convinced that nothing (!) is culturally neutral. Not even humor. If nothing is culturally neutral then Retail isn’t either. This makes the case that culture retail areamatters in retail too.

It is not a training that Culture Matters offers (we offer other Cultural Awareness Training & eBook). Instead, here you will find a number of Do’s & Dont’s typically aimed at Western retail stores catering to Asian shoppers (e.g. India, China, Japan, Taiwan, etc.).

Mind you that India, China, Japan, Taiwan, and other countries are not the same. However, from a Western perspective, they are comparable. Let me repeat this: Not the same but comparable.

My intention is this article also is not to be complete, but rather to give you some ideas and make you aware that culture matters in retail as well.

Growing Middle Classes

The countries mentioned above all have a growing and growing middle class that becomes more affluent and global. Also, the cultural diversity in Western countries calls for a better understanding of the cultural differences.

How do you give the best possible service to a group of Chinese tourists? How to recognize the difference between a Japanese group and a Taiwanese group?

Get the Edge

With the increased competition and weak consumer confidence, it makes sense to have culturally aware staff running your retail store. Understanding what to do when, when dealing with people from other cultures can make the difference between buying and… well, not buying!

The Risk

What’s the Risk? Well, the risk is that we over-simplify the cultural differences and/or make the differences too general. In other words, you might find an Arab customer being more British than the “average” Brit. Labelling people, therefore, is dangerous. On the other hand, there is not much more we can do if we want to anticipate and give our clients the best service. Observing your clients before jumping to cultural conclusions is therefore really important. As well as asking where someone is from. This way you can easily find out if someone is from Taiwan or Japan for example.


To many Asian and Arab cultures, Status is important. Status can be displayed in several ways:

  • The way you dress
  • What car you drive and where you can park (privileged parking)
  • Whether you have to shop with others or can shop exclusive
  • How many staff is serving you
  • Do you get anything to eat or drink while you shop
  • And of course, buying expensive goods also shows your status

When serving Asian and Arab cultures, it makes sense to pay attention to this. Important to realize is that you should never point out all the extra’s you do for your clients. This should come across as implicit service from your end.


Many wealthy non-Westerns like the concept of exclusive shopping. The shop or the area where they shop is for them only. This doesn’t only work for exclusive shopping. Western cultures tend to dislike being brought to a place where they “must” shop while Asian cultures tend to appreciate this much more. Extending your shopping hours might also be an idea. This emphasizes exclusivity as well.

Offer Discountsshopping-cart

I think we all know that when we go to a market place there is a good chance that you can get a discount if you ask for it. But when we buy in a normal store cultures are different. Western cultures like discounts, but won’t haggle over a loaf of bread. Asian cultures like discounts even more. Money is important. So be prepared to give discounts when asked. Replying with “this is a fair price” won’t get you as far as “we normally don’t give discounts, but for you, we‘ll make an exception.”


If there is no interpreter it makes sense to speak slower than you would otherwise. Avoid slang and jargon and use arms and legs to explain what you want to say. Nodding and specifically the word “Yes” doesn’t mean the same in every culture.

I hope these ideas were of some use. Again, I’m not trying to be complete, because this list can be much longer. However, I hope you agree with me that culture matters in retail as well. The last thing I’d like to say about this is that sales is a contact sport that you play with people and individuals. And individuals can differ from their culture. So do be careful with generalizations.

Chris Smit

I'm passionate about Cultural Difference. I have been helping organizations save time and money when they work Internationally for the last 19 years. I have had the fortunate opportunity to hold lectures, workshops, and consulting projects on this subject World Wide. It has made me understand my own culture much better, and appreciate the differences around the world.
I have a Master's Degree in Organisational Psychology and have lived in the USA, the Netherlands and, currently, in Belgium.
Thank you!

Chris Smit
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